Allison Franklin still thinks about the transgender women who helped her during her 10 years as a prostitute. In those years in and out of jail, Franklin — now an LGBTQ advocate — and the people she was with were just trying to survive.
Along with prostitution, some sold drugs or tried to recruit others to join them. It’s a narrative all too familiar for those members of the LGBTQ community caught in a spiral after incarceration, ending up there after committing crimes just to stay alive or find a place to sleep.
“So much of what drives them toward the criminal justice system has more to do with histories of trauma, substance use, mental health problems and rejection — issues that really should be treated and can be better treated using smart diversion tactics rather than the criminal justice system,” said Ryan Carlino, who put together a report on LGBTQ incarceration for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a criminal reform advocacy group.
But change is happening at the local level, where the Austin Police Department is already working to abate these trends.
Police Sgt. Michael Crumrine, the president of APD’s Lesbian and Gay Police Association chapter, said officers try to connect homeless LGBTQ people to support organizations like OutYouth and LifeWorks, which can then provide or connect them to further resources.
Since 2016, every cadet class has been trained on how to interact with the transgender community, such as allowing them to be searched by an officer matching their gender identity. APD also is looking at ways to document individuals with gender identities beyond male or female.
According to Carlino’s report, the discrimination that LGBTQ people often experience from a young age is compounded by hardships such as being kicked out of a family home or being turned away from jobs and housing because of sexual orientation or gender identity. Faced with no prospect of homes or jobs, some engage in “survival crimes,” such as prostitution or selling drugs to find shelter or earn enough to buy necessities like food or clothes.
The report cites 2016 data from Ending Community Homelessness Coalition indicating that 26% of homeless youth in Travis County say they are LGBTQ. ECHO also found that two-thirds of youths experiencing homelessness in Travis County had interactions with police.
Crumrine said police have tried to find more opportunities to write someone a ticket for minor violations rather than arresting them.
Policies like that, Carlino said, can divert people from jail or prevent them from feeling the need to commit a survival crime.
“As soon as you touch the criminal justice system, even if you’re just in jail for 48 hours, it increases exponentially the likelihood you will come into contact with the system again,” Carlino said. “If you’re able to divert people away from the system, then you are decreasing the likelihood they’re going to come back into contact with it.”
Crumrine said such arrest aversion tactics have been apart of APD’s approach for awhile, but their efforts to support the LGBTQ community begin with building trust to ensure better outcomes later.
“If society sees the Austin Police Department is nothing but a bunch of big, burly knuckle-dragging goons that aren’t going to be there to help you when you need them, how trusting are they going to be to have a conversation with us?” he said.
Once that connection is there, Crumrine said, it can be useful in court, where officers can be advocates for LGBTQ offenders, especially minors, who then can be connected with case-specific resources such as drug rehabilitation, social services or housing.
“It’s (important) to give that backstory of what we know is the root of this, because of this individual’s history of losing that support system based upon their sexual orientation or gender identity” then it changes how the case should be approached, Crumrine said.
“The court should look for that, no matter where it’s coming from certainly,” he said. “But when a law enforcement officer is giving that backstory, that’s definitely something that I think the judges pay closer attention to.”
Franklin said those connections between people committing survival crimes, law enforcement and external resources are essential for breaking cycles of incarceration but are rarely used.
“They have an added layer of vulnerability we don’t appreciate very often,” Franklin said. “It breaks my heart because we are not providing services for this community.”
Between May 2017 and April 2018, there were 2,628 felony arrests for prostitution in Texas, but only 146 were provided services through community supervision like LifeWorks or OutYouth, according to the TCJC report.
But once someone has been arrested, Travis County has measures to improve the safety of LGBTQ inmates, including special training for handling gender transgender, gender-nonconforming and intersex people.
Since 2016, the county’s jails, which are used by more than 30 arresting agencies, have complied with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which has more than 300 requirements, including several procedures aimed specifically at protecting LGBTQ people.
Some limited changes have occurred at the state level. Franklin worked during the latest legislative session with State Rep. Jessica Gonzalez, a Dallas Democrat and member of the House LGBTQ caucus, to get more funding for people who have been trafficked. Senate Bill 20, which she amended, expands the Commercial Sex Exploitation Victim Fund to support survivors of sex trafficking and the sex trade.
For now, most work to lower incarceration rates ends up in the hands of grassroots advocates like Franklin, who said she still spends much of her time working to help sex-trafficking victims as well as current and former prostitutes. She said she has to do what she can to help those still stuck in the life she was barely able to escape.
“Getting through all that and not going back for those I left behind, I can’t imagine not doing that, being able to mentor them and step into their darkness with them, and step into their darkness with them and give them a glimpse of hope,” she said.
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